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Farmers markets and food support: An idea whose time has come

Some ideas just make sense. One such idea is enabling low-income members of our community to purchase fresh, locally grown foods at the farmers market.

Farm-fresh, healthy choices at farmers markets are now easier to buy for Minnesotans who receive food support or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Farmers markets across the state are investing in EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) debit card technology, allowing them to accept food support benefits. In 2011, sixteen markets across the state accepted EBT cards with over $67,000 in EBT sales.

IATP partnered with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, the City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County and participating markets to help catalyze the expansion of EBT at farmers markets in Minneapolis over the last two years, providing technical support and leading community outreach and promotional efforts. By last summer, six markets in Minneapolis were accepting food support benefits. The main Minneapolis Farmers Market alone registered $36,500 in EBT sales to low income shoppers in 2011, up 169 percent from 2010.

Participating markets are also providing financial incentives to expand SNAP users’ purchasing power and incentivize healthy eating. As part of an innovative project funded by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, Communities Putting Prevention to Work, and Minnesota’s Statewide Health Improvement Program, for the first $5 a customer spent on their EBT cards, they received an additional $5 in “Market Bucks” coupons. Connecting SNAP participants with farmers markets also creates new opportunities for local farmers and keeps food dollars circulating in the local economy.

While the EBT program is just getting off the ground in Minnesota, the results are real. A whopping 88 percent of surveyed EBT users said they eat more fruits and vegetables because they can use their SNAP benefits at the farmers market. Ninety-five percent of those surveyed said that they now shop more at farmers markets because of the program.

Unfortunately, successful programs like this are at risk as Congress looks to slash funding for the 2012 Farm Bill. We encourage you to let your Senators and Representatives know that opening up farmers markets to SNAP participants is an idea whose time has come.